The Magic of Scheherazade (NES)

Ladies! Ladies! If you could please form an orderly line, that’d be great.

What would you say if I told you that Square’s legendary Chrono Trigger wasn’t the first Japanese RPG to feature an epic time travel storyline and a cast of colorful characters that could pool their abilities in battle to unleash devastating combination attacks? Welcome to The Magic of Scheherazade from oddball developer Culture Brain! It may be the most ambitious 8-bit console RPG ever made. Whether this ultimately works to its benefit or not depends on your point of view.

Arabian Dorīmu Sherazādo (“Arabian Dream Scheherazade”) was initially released for the Famicom in 1987 and then altered significantly for its 1989 debut in North America. The simple music of the original was expanded into something more on par with other releases from the latter half of the NES’s life cycle and many of the character sprites were re-drawn with smaller eyes, presumably to de-anime them some for us gaijin. We definitely got the better game over here. The score is a clear upgrade and I greatly prefer the new character designs. Your turban-clad hero looks rather cool in the North American version, whereas his Japanese counterpart’s manic grin and bulging eyes came across less “cute and cuddly” and more “I’ll swallow your soul!”

As the game opens, we’re informed that the peaceful land of Arabia has been attacked by demons commanded by the evil wizard Sabaron. A brave descendent of the legendary magician Isfa steps up to challenge Sabaron, but he is defeated and his sweetheart Princess Scheherazade is abducted, as are her father and three sisters. Now nearly powerless and suffering from amnesia, the hero (whom you name) must journey across the land and rebuild his strength by vanquishing demons, recruiting allies, and traveling back and forth between multiple time periods with the aid of an adorable blue cat creature named Coronya the time spirit.

Even though the action is supposedly set in a real place, don’t come expecting any sort of geographical, historical, or cultural accuracy. Setting the game in “Arabia” is strictly an excuse to bring in some of the trappings of the classic Arabian Nights stories like genies, scimitars, and flying carpets in place of the usual Western European fantasy iconography. Apart from that, the world and characters are as divorced from reality as they are in any JRPG.

Arabia isn’t a single large, open world as per most games in the genre. Instead, it’s divided into five chapters. Each chapter plays out like a little self-contained mini-RPG, complete with its own towns, overworld, dungeons, and big boss demon at the end. One feature I found quite cool is the way that character progression is tied into this chapter system. Your hero can only gain a maximum of five levels per chapter, which helps insure that the challenge of defeating each boss can’t be completely negated through grinding. Beat the boss and the next chapter starts automatically. There’s no way to backtrack to previous chapters, so it’s technically possible to miss out on some items and spells. Nothing necessary to complete the game is skippable, however, so there’s no need to stress out too much.

Speaking of decisions not worth stressing over, you’ll also have to pick one of three character classes for your hero at the start. The fighter is best at dealing close range damage with swords, the magician is better at ranged attacks with magic rods, and the saint is pretty much terrible at both and should only be considered if you want to render the game extra challenging. Thankfully, you can change your class at any time by visiting the mosque in town and paying a small monetary fee. You’ll actually need to do this at least once in order to complete the game, since several quests require you to be a particular class.

Every chapter of your quest includes at least one mandatory trip through time to the area’s past or future. The time travel element doesn’t come off quite as awesome here as it does in the later Chrono Trigger, mainly due to the fact that MoS’s graphics are quite limited by comparison and every era you visit tends to look about the same as a result. There are no dinosaurs or space ships awaiting you here. Instead, Arabia retains its medieval look even across thousands of years. The game does still use the premise to interesting effect on occasion, though. At one point, I recieved an important clue about what to do next by an NPC who presented it as something I’d already done in the past. Since my character then needed to travel back in time to actually do it, that means that he had, in a sense, already done it. Weird, man.

Including Coronya, there are a total of eleven other characters that will join your party over the course of the adventure. Collectively, they have to be the biggest collection of freaks and weirdos you’ll encounter outside of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. There’s a robot, a shrimp, a glass bottle with arms and legs, a jack o’ lantern, a flying squirrel, and so on, with nary a single regular human being in the lot. Unfortunately, none of them are really all that interesting apart from their visual designs and conceptual gimmicks. MoS is still an early JRPG, after all, and doesn’t go out of its way to provide reams of dialog and rich characterization. You’ll usually just recruit a given character in order to progress past a specific obstacle to your quest that only they can bypass and then forget about them as they spend the rest of the game just filling out a menu slot in battle and not saying or doing much of anything. In this sense, they almost function more like “key items” than characters in a story.

The gameplay represents an attempt to combine two of the biggest Famicom sensations of the time: The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest. This means that we get overhead view real time action RPG combat existing side-by-side with menu-driven turn-based fighting. This is what I was alluding to above when I said that the game’s extreme ambition can be both its greatest strength and weakness. Most of your playing time is spent in the overhead “Zelda mode.” This is where you’ll be exploring the world, talking to NPCs, and doing the bulk of your fighting with sword and magic rod. In contrast, the “Dragon Quest mode” only crops up for occasional random battles, the frequency of which varies from uncommon on the overworld to fairly regular inside caves and dungeons.

This highlights my biggest problem with the game: The turn-based battles are really not essential to your progression in any way and come off as an afterthought at best and a pace killer at worst. I realized pretty early on that you never actually need to bother with them at all. In fact, you’ll be better off in the long run if you don’t. See, the real time combat is a relatively simple and safe way to harvest experience points and money since most enemies are easy to mow down quickly with minimal loss of health. The enemies in turn-based mode take much longer to fight due to all the menu navigation and will often use poweful magic attacks to deal out large amounts of damage and nasty status effects to your party members, requiring you to expend more magic points and healing items to recover your strength. Since defeating enemies in both modes provides you with the exact same rewards (experience and money), there’s no practical reason to not immediately run from every turn-based fight, as they’re just a much slower, more resource-intensive way to accomplish the exact same thing. It’s a real pity, too, since the designers obviously put a lot of work into these battles. There are a ton of characters in your party to experiment with and using specific combinations enables the use of those special team-up attacks I mentioned. You can even hire mercenary troops in town to fight alongside your main party members. It’s deep and interesting and yet still totally pointless in the end. Too bad.

You know what, though? That’s not going to stop me from recommending this game in a big way. It has so much going on for such an early console RPG that it’s almost unbelievable at times. I didn’t even get around to mentioning the universities where you can take classes to learn about proper magic use and combat tactics, the casinos, the pre-Dragon Quest III inclusion of a sort of day/night cycle with the solar eclipses, haggling with merchants, the ins and outs of the magic system, etc. I would be here writing all day if I really wanted to detail every little nuance of this sprawling title. It even has a great sense of humor, though some of the jokes can verge into trollish territory. For example, a character in one town asks you if you’re ever afraid of monsters. If you answer yes, he basically says “I suppose you’d better call it quits then, huh?” and you get an instant game over on the spot! Good thing you have unlimited continues and passwords.

The Magic of Scheherazade is another example of a game like ActRaiser that’s considerably better than the sum of its parts by virtue of its unique blend of seemingly incongruous gameplay elements, its overarching charm, and its sheer verve. It’s not a great action RPG or a great turn-based RPG, just a great experience that no NES enthusiast should miss out on.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some pressing princess business to take care of. Truly a hero’s work is never done.

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Dragon Warrior (NES)

Forsooth, thou art most rad!

Now this takes me back. What can I even say about 1986’s Dragon Quest, better known here as Dragon Warrior? It was the first RPG for the Famicom/NES and consequently the first that many gamers of my generation, myself included, were ever exposed to. It’s ground zero for an entire genre in the minds of millions. The wilds of Alefgard are where I scored my first experience point, achieved my first level-up, and cast my first healing spell. This is primal stuff, man. Archetypal.

I can start by dispelling a few common misconceptions about the game. For starters, it was neither the first console RPG (1982’s Dragonstomper for the Atari 2600 is the best candidate for that honor) nor the first Japanese RPG (domestic creations like The Black Onyx and Dragon Slayer were staples on Japanese home computers as early as 1984). It also wasn’t designer Yuji Horii’s first major success. 1985 had seen the Famicom release of Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Incident”), Horii’s port of his own “visual novel” style detective adventure game originally released for home computers in 1983. In converting Portopia for Nintendo’s machine, Horii wisely avoided limiting the game’s appeal by forgoing use of the Famicom keyboard accessory and instead replacing the text parser of the computer versions with a menu of fourteen standardized commands that could be easily managed with the default controller. As the first adventure game released for the Famicom, Portopia moved over 700,000 units and ignited a passion for visual novels that persists in Japanese gaming circles to this day.

As a follow-up effort, Dragon Quest can be seen as a return to form for Horii: Start with a complex and potentially intimidating game type that’s popular on niche computers and then streamline and simplify it for introduction to the much wider and more lucrative console market. He took a cup of Ultima, added a dash of Wizardry, and then garnished with a user friendly interface straight out of Portopia. Two millions copies later, it was clear that lightning had indeed struck twice.

Well, two million copies in Japan, that is. Enix had equally high hopes for the North American release in 1989, for which Nintendo themselves would take over publishing duty. They went all-out by springing for enhanced graphics, a top notch localization of the game’s script, a battery save option to replace the original’s cumbersome passwords, and a detailed 64-page strategy guide bundled with every copy. It was a disaster.

What went wrong? Well, it turns out that much of the game’s initial success in Japan was due to its artwork by superstar illustrator Akira Toriyama and its heavy promotion in the pages of the popular action manga magazine Shōnen Jump. Over here, however, it was a totally unknown quantity to consumers and the result was warehouses full of unsellable Dragon Warrior cartridges. The solution? Another, more desperate stab at a magazine cross-promotion: Readers of Nintendo Power were actually sent a free copy of Dragon Warrior with every $20 subscription! An estimated 500,000 copies were distributed in this way. The hope was that, once they were exposed to the game one way or another, players in North America would be just as hooked as their counterparts across the Pacific and turn out in droves for the sequels.

Again, things didn’t quite work out as intended. Sales of Dragon Warrior II, III, and IV on the NES were all lukewarm at best. By the time Dragon Quest made the jump to 16-bit, Enix had given up entirely and the West wouldn’t see another entry in the series until Dragon Warrior VII made it to the PlayStation in 2001. In the meantime, Pokemon and Final Fantasy VII would step in and become the long-awaited smash hit “gateway” RPGs for the North American market, finally succeeding were Dragon Warrior had failed.

Don’t feel too bad for Yuji Horii and friends, though. Dragon Quest may still only hold cult appeal in my neck of the woods, but the mania it kicked off in its homeland has never truly abated. Even now, new releases are virtually national holidays in Japan and the franchise’s grinning blue slime mascot is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

Geez, that’s a lot of background. What about the actual game? Well, it goes like this: You start out in a throne room talking to a king. The king tells you that an evil dude called the Dragonlord has stolen the magic artifact that safeguards the land of Alefgard and kidnapped its beautiful princess to boot. Since you’re the descendant of a legendary hero, it’s now your job to gather the tools needed to breach the Dragonlord’s stronghold, introduce him to the pointy end of your sword, and recover the missing magical thingy. Also, that princess, if it’s not too much bother.

In order to do this, you need to explore the game’s medieval fantasy world from an Ultima style top-down viewpoint searching for important items and interrogating friendly villagers for hints on where to head next. Random encounters with monsters will shift the perspective to a first person combat display similar to Wizardry’s where you can choose your commands from a basic menu that includes options to fight, flee, cast magic spells, and use helpful items like medicinal herbs. These battles are very frequent and you’ll need to win hundreds of them in order to garner the thousands of experience points and gold pieces necessary to power your initially wimpy character up enough to stand a chance against the Dragonlord.

What’s that, you say? This sounds like every console RPG ever made? Bingo!  When I called it archetypal, I wasn’t exaggerating. Dragon Warrior is the very mold, the template, the plain cheese pizza of JRPGs. This is what makes it so tricky to pin down three decades later. Even so, I’ll do my best to cover the highs and lows.

One thing that still stands out today are Toriyama’s stellar monster designs. Though I’ve never been able to find any enjoyment in his most famous creation, the Dragonball series, I’ve always been drawn to his “40% menacing, 60% adorable” take on traditional fantasy critters. Even when I was finally face-to-face with the fearsome Dragonlord himself, part of me wished I could rub his cute scaly belly instead of dueling to the death. The detail and charm packed into every foe’s portrait single-handedly justifies the choice of a first person view for the combat.

I’m also impressed by the sheer scope and quality of Dragon Warrior’s English translation and localization, which are credited to Toshiko Watson and Scott Pelland, respectively. Their work is years ahead of its time when you consider that the 1980s were the Wild West of game localization and many publishers couldn’t manage to produce so much as a single screen of translated text that didn’t read like drunken Mad Libs. Here, all the dialog makes sense and the faux Elizabethan dialect the characters speak with is profoundly corny, but endearingly so. I’ll even admit to finding it pretty epic as a kid. There’s also a sweet extended in-joke included in the form of some character cameos that will be very familiar to former Nintendo Power readers.

If there’s one undeniable downside to playing through Dragon Warrior, it’s the extraordinary amount of mindless grinding required. While almost all RPGs expect the player to engage in endless random battles for money and experience, the best of them also give you plenty of places to go and things to do along the way. That way, you never have a chance to dwell on how repetitive these frequent combats can be on their own. Unfortunately, there are no side quests or diversions to be found here. Dragon Warrior has exactly two goals for the player: Kill the Dragonlord and rescue the princess. The game world is also quite small, and gathering the three key items needed to enter the Dragonlord’s castle is a simple task if you know where to look. The end result? About two hours of worthwhile exploration and excitement aggressively padded out into an excruciating 10+ hour slog. The late game in particular is a mess. By level 15, I had tracked down every key item, acquired all the best equipment, and even rescued the princess. There was literally nothing left in the entire game for me to do except kill the Dragonlord…which requires you to be around level 20. Reaching level 20 requires a total of 26,000 experience points, well over twice what I’d accumulated up to that point. So, stubborn fool that I am, I spent hours pacing back and forth over the same stretch of map, robotically striking down hundreds of generic enemies and pausing only to trek back to the inn when I ran low on healing spells. Then I killed the Dragonlord. Such fun.

Don’t get me wrong: As an introductory RPG circa 1986, Dragon Warrior’s approach is nothing short of genius. Horii managed to pare away every non-essential element from the popular computer RPGs of the time while still retaining the core appeal of a grand fantasy adventure where the player’s avatar continually grows in power and sharp wits and sound decisions matter more than quick reflexes. There’s no character customization to be found here, no class system, no multiple character party to manage, and the story is the most basic “princess and dragon” setup imaginable. This not only insured that the game had the broadest possible appeal, it perfectly set up Dragon Quest as an ongoing series, since follow-up releases could be predicated on gradually reintroducing these very same advanced mechanics in modular fashion. Thus, the second game included multiple player characters, the third added character creation and a robust class system, and so on. In this way, the series both birthed and raised a generation of Japanese RPG fans.

Dragon Warrior captivated me back in 1989. I played it day and night and even wandered its perilous fields and dungeons in my dreams. Next came Final Fantasy, tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, and so many more. Revisiting it now, though, I’m reminded why I mainly play action games these days. While the presentation still has its charms, it’s clear that my elementary schooler self didn’t value his time very highly. Simple and repetitive as it is, Dragon Warrior is best approached today as either a nostalgia trip or an interactive history lesson. In either case, patience is a must. RPG fans in general are much better off seeking out the later re-releases for the Game Boy Color and Super Famicom, which both cut down on the grinding significantly. That, or skipping straight to the brilliant Dragon Warrior III.

Thou hast been warned!

Sweet Home (Famicom)

Comments? Well, if you insist.

First off: Did you know that Sweet Home was a primary inspiration for Capcom’s Resident Evil series? Great! Now that I’ve mentioned the thing that most reviews devote about half of their word count to, I can actually talk about Sweet Home!

Sweet Home is a 1989 horror RPG for the Nintendo Famicom developed and rpublished by Capcom and intended to be a tie-in with the horror film of the same name that hit theaters in Japan that same year. Movie director Kiyoshi Kurosawa even collaborated with his game director counterpart Tokuro Fujiwara (Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Commando) and granted him access to the set during shooting. The film version is pretty alright. It’s a campy, effects-laden roller coaster of a haunted house flick that owes a lot to Poltergeist. Worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing, but since Sweet Home is a lot more successful, interesting, and important as a game, I’d recommend you play it before you watch it. Neither the game nor the movie were ever officially released outside of Japan. I played Sweet Home on a reproduction cartridge using the fan translation originally released online in 2000.

Thirty years ago, the famous fresco painter Ichirō Mamiya mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a number of lost frescoes in his secluded mansion. Now, a team of five filmmakers have journeyed to the crumbling mansion to document and preserve Mamiya’s lost works. Before they even have a chance to get started, the house shakes and the door they just entered through is blocked by falling rubble. The spectral figure of a mysterious woman then appears and threatens death on all trespassers. These five ordinary people must band together if they’re to have any hope of uncovering the truth about the house’s bloody past and finding their way out alive.

Starting out, that’s all you get. Sweet Home is not a game that’s front-loaded with tons of backstory and character development. Watching the game’s intro only takes slightly longer than reading my summary of it above. After being given a chance to re-name the game’s five playable characters if you wish, you’ll be off exploring within a minute or two.

Once you are off and running, you’ll certainly notice the similarity to other old school JRPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. The overhead view, the menus, the character statistics and inventory screens, the random turn-based battles, it’s all what you’d expect. At least at first. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll quickly realize that Sweet Home is much more than Dragon Quest with gorier monsters to fight. Numerous smart gameplay tweaks elevate it above most of its contemporaries and instill it with an unrelenting sense of urgency and dread. Sweet Home is not only better than almost every other console RPG of its time, it’s better than most horror games released to this day.

How do you make an 8-bit RPG scary? For starters, make sure that the player never feels safe. Sweet Home accomplishes this by not including any “safe” rooms in the mansion, analogous to the towns and inns of most RPGs. Instead, your party is subject to enemy attack at all times from the first screen of the game onward.

Like any good horror movie, you also do your best to separate the party members. While you start the game with five characters, only up to three can travel together at the same time. This means that you’ll spend most of the game controlling two parties that you can switch between at will: One consisting of three characters and the other, more vulnerable one consisting of two. You can also have characters travel solo if you like, but this is not advised for obvious reasons.

Next, limit the ability to heal injured characters. Healing here comes courtesy of health tonics scattered throughout the mansion. You’ll need to find them before you can use them, they’re single use only, and they exist in finite numbers. They also take up inventory space, and each character can only carry two items plus a weapon. That’s ten items total, assuming a full party, so you’ll need to make some hard decisions about what to carry and what to leave behind, all without knowing exactly which items you’ll need to cope with upcoming hazards and puzzles. This makes inventory management yet another source of tension and uncertainty.

Finally, if you should lose one of your characters to a monster attack or death trap, they’re gone for good. There are no resurrection spells or items to be found here. Dead is dead in Sweet Home, at least for your unfortunate party members. They take with them not just their combat damage output, but also two of your precious items slots. Three really, because you’ll then need to carry around an item with you to replicate the fallen character’s special skill. Each character has a special ability tied to an item that only they can carry which doesn’t take up a regular item slot: Kazuo’s lighter burns away ropes blocking your path, Akiko’s first aid kit cures poison and curses, Emi’s key opens locked doors, Taro’s camera reveals hidden messages on the mansion’s frescos, and Asuka’s vacuum can clear paths of debris and clean dirt off of some frescoes to reveal more clues. You’ll need to use these abilities constantly, so do your best to keep everybody in one piece.

Thankfully, the game isn’t completely unforgiving, since you can save your progress anytime and anywhere. This was a standard feature in computer games at the time, but virtually unknown in a console game and it works wonders here. You can avoid a ton of heartache if you save early and save often. Each time you solve a puzzle, find an important item, or make it through a tough series of encounters in good shape, don’t forget to save!

Combat is basic for the most part. It’s also very quick, since you’ll always be battling against a single foe at a time. Characters can fight, run, use items, and pray. Praying is this game’s version of magic and you can spend your character’s prayer points to deal extra damage if you wish, although I didn’t find it all that necessary in most fights. The coolest option is the ability to call characters from outside the current battle to come join in the fight. Selecting this will transition you out of the battle screen and put you in control of the characters being called. You then have a short window of time to dash through the mansion and join up with the original group to team up against the monster. This is the only time where you can potentially control all five characters at once. Not only does getting everyone involved in a battle allow you to kill your opponent faster, it also insures that everyone gets a share of the resulting experience points and is the best time to use those all-important healing tonics. Next to saving frequently, proper use of the call command is the single most important thing to come to grips with if you want to survive Sweet Home.

All these high-pressure mechanics still wouldn’t amount to much if Sweet Home didn’t also come bundled with a suitably ghoulish presentation to support them, and it’s the combination of the tense gameplay and the creepy sound and visuals that really makes the game pop. While the standard overhead view of the mansion isn’t exactly a visual marvel, your surroundings do look appropriately dilapidated and dangerous. The rest of the game’s graphics are significantly better and the various enemies you’ll encounter are probably the highlight. They’re extremely detailed and grotesque, with many lurid deformities and mutilations that would never have passed muster with Nintendo of America’s censors. The music by 80s Capcom mainstay Junko Tamiya is simply brilliant. Brooding, eerie, or pulse-pounding as the situation demands, it’s always perfectly suited to whatever terrible thing is transpiring on screen. Without the dynamic action beats of something like Castlevania to support, it’s fascinating to hear a well-executed stab at a true horror soundtrack using the Famicom/NES sound chip.

Sweet Home’s crowning glory has to be its plot. It’s remarkably tragic and twisted for a Famicom game and it’s left to the player to piece it together organically by hunting down diary entries, the corpses of the house’s past victims, hidden message in paintings, and the like. This is a common way of delivering story in a horror game these days, but to see it handled so well this early on marks Sweet Home as years ahead of its time.

That sums up Sweet Home in general, really. Long before Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, it was a total horror experience that somehow achieved everything it set out to brilliantly despite an overall lack of precedent. With so many trails to blaze at once, any one of them could have easily been a dead end. In those primordial days of survival horror gaming, it almost beggers belief that the puzzles, level design, combat mechanics, inventory management, visuals, audio, and storytelling all turned out this excellent. So much so, in fact, that I have no real gripes with the game worth mentioning. It still stands tall today as a slick, compelling work, not just a crude antediluvian prototype of interest only to gaming historians.

While it’s tough to compare Sweet Home directly to a more traditional Famicom/NES RPG from around this time, such as the superb Dragon Quest IV, you can make a case that the high stakes mechanics and lack of grinding make it the single most fun RPG for the system to revisit today. Without a doubt, it’s the best pure horror release for the console and one of its strongest titles overall. It even holds up a lot better than the early Resident Evil games in my book.

The grim and gory Sweet Home never had the slightest chance of being officially localized for the family-friendly NES, but it’s a true classic that every RPG or horror fan should experience in their lifetime. Or after it….